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Let me start by saying that I'm older and played casuals (weddings, dances, lounges, etc.) when I was young (HS and college). To the limited degree that I improvised, it was melody-based. Not that I ignored the chords, but mostly I tried to build melodies around the written melody and in harmony with the chords I heard.

I'm back to playing and have been reading through a Real Book recently. It seems that there are many standards - or standard-like tunes, which have a melody that - to my ears - has some substance/development/etc.

Then there are tunes, some of which are written by guys/gals who I know are great players, which seem to lack melodic completeness.

I guess that many are just heads designed as a reference for the changes, but I guess that I just don't get it - at least yet.

I can understand that some players can improvise through changes with no thought of the melody that was written. In fact, I sometimes find that, at least with ballads, if I don't know the melody at all, and if the changes seem beautiful, it gives me some freedom to play without worrying about the standard melody.

That said, I look/listen to some of these brief tunes and think that they seem like nothing more than "cover" for a set of changes.

Before the onslaught starts, I understand that the shortcoming IS likely mine. I've only recently even be exposed ideas like playing this scale against that chord. I always thought that the idea was to play lines that were pretty or interesting and just fit in because they sounded good. My problem, I know, and probably why I can play ballads with some success, but can't begin to know what to do when someone counts off Oleo at 300.

I'm wondering what others think feel about this distinction between (at the extremes) standard-type songs and brief melodies that seem to have no development or "completeness".

Don't get me wrong, I'm often dazzled by the playing of players who can do interesting and exciting things for an extended period of time with pretty much nothing but a set of changes to guide them, but I still miss the reference to a well developed melody when it seems to not be there.

I wonder what others think about this. Do those of you who can improvise over changes with little concern about the written melody find that to be "just fine," or does the lack of a well-developed melody seem a genuine shortcoming?

Or is my view of what constitutes a good melody unnecessarily restrictive?

OK - have at it.
 

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examples ,please

Interesting topic. But could you please
give an example of one of the tunes that you think lacks completeness?

That might help get this discussion going, which I imagine could be a a good one.
 

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If it sounds right, it is.

If it sounds wrong, it is.

If you don't like it then you don't like it. Granted everyone should keep their ears (and minds!) open at all times but everyone's allowed to have an opinion. So long as you understand that is IN an opinion.

I don't think there's "good" and "bad" music. There's music that appeals to a wider range or people, perhaps, but by that logic, Brittany Spears is better than Coltrane.

Uh, no. :p

I figure if you are going to write a melody, write a good one! There's a Parker recording called "Leap Frog" where they just jam over rhythm changes. No head, no nothing. And it's a great recording! Kenny Werner and guys like him do whole gigs without ANY pre-rehearsed material (or so I've been told). Look at all the "free" improvisers.

The thing is you want to be able to HEAR the changes, then play something over them (and hear that as well). So you kind of hear the whole band playing that passage in your head before you play it.

There's no rule that says you have to play "interesting" colours. Some players played amazingly "boring" stuff and made it sound amazingly hip (listen to Dexter or Lester Young).

You said:

I always thought that the idea was to play lines that were pretty or interesting and just fit in because they sounded good.

That is the point. Scales, chords, and theory in general is just a tool. Mark Levine says that in his book. Theory can help you figure out what sounds good. It can help you glue your solo together.

But if you rely on it you sound like just another clone. Don't do it man. The fact that you can play ballads is a great thing. Most people can't do that - don't lose that! But you should open your ears and try and get some more stuff in there. Learn everything, then just play whatever the hell you hear.

Just remember, there's no right or wrong. Music is ENTIRELY subjective. Just make sure you remember that and if you don't like something, that doesn't make it bad. And if someone doesn't like something you like, it doesn't make either of you wrong. If Chris Potter says music you like is crap, and you like it, then don't change your mind. Be true to you and what you hear and like.
 

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To Tenorocity and Daniel

Tenorocity,

As soon as I posted my message I realized I should have provided some examples - since I'd just looked at some.

Tunes like Contemplation, by McCoy Tyner, or Mr. PC by Trane would fall into one type, while most of the standards into the other. The first two may not be the best examples, but sort of give the idea. Oleo might be another.

Daniel,

You're certainly right about the subjectivity of it all. As I think about it, it may be that I'm new to a lot of the less standard tunes and when I play the melodies, I'm doing it without enough experience to imagine the changes behind them. When I improvise on a more standard-like (whatever that means) tune I usually find that when I play a line - and if look at it after the fact and in terms of the changes - what I've played generally fits in the changes.

Kind of like practicing 2nd alto parts without the rest of the band. It's hard to have a sense of what your playing as part of a larger whole, until you've heard the whole.

I'm not saying that one type of tune is better than the the other, although I tend to like one more than the other I guess. Just that to me some melodies seem to have more to them and stand more on their own, or in some way be more complete or developed.

I guess what I was getting at is that for someone who tends to think melodically more than in terms of changes, a brief head seems to offer less to work with and a reference that seems less complete.

I appreciate your thoughts - they help me clarify my own - even if I'm not expressing them very well at the moment.
 

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In your re-assessment, I think you've basically touched on the solution to your situation. For any of the tunes to have their full effect, they would need to be played with the relevant harmonies (changes) in mind, whether you have a rhythm section backing you or not. This is probably the first and essential step.

irimi said:
I guess what I was getting at is that for someone who tends to think melodically more than in terms of changes, a brief head seems to offer less to work with and a reference that seems less complete.
Mmm, I would tend to think the opposite. A "brief head" would, if anything, leave more to the imagination, as there is usually just that much more rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic territory that is yet to be explored. Perhaps what's needed here is a change of mindset. This will, of course, come with experience, but the key is rather than to use the melody as ground base for your improvisations, to create your own melodies off of the changes, thus making statements that aren't contained or always informed by the original melody. Now, there is nothing wrong with quoting the melody in a solo, or using some variant of it, but what you don't want to have happen is to end up using the melody as a security blanket.
 

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Irimi

An interesting point - and although I disagree with a lot of what has been said I do think that you should trust your own ears as to what you like and don't. Otherwise what's the point?

Having said that, I don't buy into that 'music is entirely subjective' stuff. Daniel rather undermines his own argument IMHO by comparing Britney and Trane - no one could argue that Britney is a better musician regardless of her sales.

Standards are song forms - they tell a story lyrically and try to copy that harmonically and melodically. This is probably why they sound more complete. Cole Porter was a master at this. Later 'heads' tend to be more of a platform for improvisation, but they have their roots in the same song forms - Mr PC is a blues, Oleo is based on 'I've got Rhythm'.

My suggestion to you is to try to analyse the harmonic and melodic composition of tunes more - you'll find they shares a lot more with the standards you enjoy than you think.
 

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different kinds of melodies

Getting back to your examples of Mr. PC or Oleo as tunes that might "lack melodic completeness," I think I know what you are driving at.

These, (along with almost all bebop heads), fall into different category of melody than a standard like Body and Soul. First of all, they were not written with lyrics, and not meant to be performed by a singer. They are more instrumental in their original conception.

Whether or not they are any less melodic, however, is a different question.

I recall when I first learned Billie's Bounce I could make no sense out of it at all. The same with many other bop heads.

After time however, I did start to get it. And now these heads are just as melodic to my ear as All the Things or Autumn Leaves.

A good idea is also to listen to these tunes on cds, or play them at the piano. Some of them do seem to need the harmonies behind them to feel "complete."

As for improvising on the melody, it still is possible with these tunes. It might be more about a motif, however, as opposed to a longer melodic phrase. And ultimately, all great improvisation is melodic. The melodies may be very fast, or very strange, but the masters are able to make everything they play as logical as Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.

But your initial insight is right: they do seem to open things up more for a freer improv. And that might feel a little uncomfortable at first.

If you play them enough, you might find yourself liking them more and more.

The real point here, and I've made this many times in many posts, is that none of us should feel obliged to play or like anything that doesn't really grab us.

But it is worth the effort to spend some time with thing we don't get, because more often than not, we end up liking stuff that we just weren't hearing at first. And that's the cool part of studying music.

Anyway, keep exploring and play what you like.
 

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My two cents. There are "songs" and there are "tunes". All songs have tunes but not all tunes have songs, i.e., words. The songs' words tell a story. The tunes, even the jazz standards like Mr. PC, don't tell a story but they provide a recognizable element to a piece of music which helps the musicians and the audience relate to the music. Although the head of a blues with the same changes as another head (very common) may be simple, I think it does affect the improvisation and it certainly provides a reference by defining the composition. I would be more inclined to buy a CD with Mr. PC and Now's the Time listed than "Bb Blues" and "Another Bb Blues".

Our minds expect a musical performance to be based on a melody, even if it is a somewhat simple one.
 

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This is an interesting thread. I think I have thoughts similar to irimi's. E.g., I don't much get into the recordings of old bebop "jams", even when it's high quality playing.

I recall reading that Lee Konitz was very much in favor of building improvisation off the melody of a tune rather than off the changes. Here's an interview where he talks about that:
http://www.melmartin.com/html_pages/Interviews/konitz.html

I'd be curious to hear what some of the experts think about that sort of approach, especially about whether the end product is radically different. That is, I think that in the end Konitz may end up departing just as much from the original melody as a player who just immediately disregards the melody and "plays the changes". But there's still a difference, right?
 

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I think a really accomplished improvisor can both "embellish the melody" and "play the changes" depending on the tune, and sometimes even weave in and out between the two approaches. I've recently been working on "Cry Me a River", one of my favorite tunes....... I found a recording by the singer "Lulu" on YouTube where the great British bebopper Peter King takes a solo...... listen to it if you get a chance. It's interesting because some parts of Peter's solo clearly outline the melody and the "feel" of the tune, while at other places he he plays classic bebop "changes" over the chords....... IMO, it's a great solo, weaving in and out between references to the tune and bebop-style change running.

I don't think it's a question of one "right" way.......... the more different approaches you have will allow you more creative options. I'm increasingly arriving at the view that good improvisors have a huge bag of "tricks" available which they can instantly recall as the mood strikes. They can shift gears, so to speak, instantaneously. I figure I'll be able to do that in another 100 years or so :)
 

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I reckon "standards" by their nature tend to have catchy melodies (if you can't walk away from the gig humming it then it probably isn't a true standard). I also think that with a standard there's a whole set of expectations from both artist and audience about "the way it should sound" that's there before you start. I think this is why irimi doesn;t have a problem improvising more fluidly when he doesn;t know the melody.

But tunes don't have to have strong melodies. For instance, I have spent a lot more musician time in the realms of reggae than of jazz and in reggae the tradition is the opposite - making up new melodies over existing "riddims". You can buy whole albums of the same riddim treated differently each time with melodic and/or rhythmic variations but the essential groove and bassline will always remain constant - kind of the reverse of jazz in a funny way :)

I agree with renaissance man (well most of what he says), a strong melody line tends to narrow your options down if you're not careful.

As a non-sight-reading ex self-taught reggae/blues guitar player who knows few jazz standards (none really well) I have the opposite problem in that I don't treat the melodies with enough respect and go off and do wild stuff that fits the changes (sometimes ;) ). Something I'm trying to learn to correct...
 

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Rick Adams said:
I agree with renaissance man (well most of what he says), a strong melody line tends to narrow your options down if you're not careful.
Yes, but I think the whole point is that songs are supposed to have a unique identity. I.e.,your options are supposed to be narrowed down. At least if you want to play or create a recognizable song.

I remember many years ago on the Jay Leno show, Jay was reading some fan mail and one of them was directed to Kevin Eubanks, the bandleader. The question was something like "Why do all of your songs sound the same?" Kevin, gracious guy that he is, just sort of smiled. But the questioner had a point. Without a melody for listeners to attach to many jazz songs end up being hard to tell apart.

Another jazz-related quote I remember from popular tv: on Sex and the City the main character Carrie had a date with a jazz musician. When he asked whether she liked jazz she answered, "Not really, I like music that has a melody." That sort of boggled my mind, because when I think of jazz I think of the standards that are part of the Great American Songbook, songs with strong, beautiful melodics that serve as kind of a bedrock for a good chunk of what's called jazz. But when I started thinking from point of view of the average non-jazz-afficionado I could see that the average jane's and joe's might well think of jazz as being non-melodic.

My own take on playing, novice though I am, will be more focused on strong melodies. If not the standards, then something like Sonny Rollins or Dexter Gordon, the hard bop stuff that had a strong motif and clearly developed it with beginning, middle, and end.

Maybe I'm just not sophisticated enough musically, but lots of those bebop jam sessions like the famous "Jazz at Massey Hall" ( http://www.musthear.com/reviews/masseyhall.html ) just seem like a lot of blowing to me. Technically amazing, but nothing for me to grab onto or appreciate melodically. Then again, maybe I just need to go back and relisten.
 

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hsitz said:
Yes, but I think the whole point is that songs are supposed to have a unique identity. I.e.,your options are supposed to be narrowed down. At least if you want to play or create a recognizable song.
Perhaps I should have added the words "more than could be desirable" to the end of my sentence you quoted, as this was what I meant. I don't think I got my point across, what I'm saying is firstly that very well known melodies tend to get treated very conservatively simply because they are so well known - it's a well known phenomenon that for example the audience can be quite disappointed if you dare to dis their favourite standard by treating it diffferently, for example, and many musicians also feel this, hence the potential in approaching a strong melody to lock into that strong melody "too much" - whatever that might mean. This is actually evidenced by itimi's own comments about how it's different for him if he doesn't "know" the melody - so he creates one and feels comfortable improvising around it :)

My second point is that melody is one of the ways to create a unique and pleasing piece of music but not the only one. I cited a particular tradition in reggae as an example of this, but it's only an example, there're plenty of others.

I am certainly not advocating "boring music" or suggesting that melodies are a bad idea, just that neither are they the be all and end all. There are many ways to "have your options narrowed down" that do not require a strong, pre-defined melody that you are "not allowed" to divert too far from :)
 

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Of course, in this examination of tunes, we've left out an entire genre--the 'vocalise', where tunes, or even improvised solos have lyrics put over them. Singers such as Eddie Jefferson, Jon Hendricks, wrote lyrics to many of these tunes.

In fact, the jazz vocal group Lamberts, Hendricks and Ross did a a vocal version of Mr. PC.

That being said, I think it is important to know the lyrics of a song standard. It helps an improvisor know the emotional underpinnings of a song, and where the composer may have been 'coming from'.
 

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hakukani said:
I think it is important to know the lyrics of a song standard. It helps an improvisor know the emotional underpinnings of a song, and where the composer may have been 'coming from'.
:salute: agreed, especially for us sax players.
 

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Before dismissing a tune such as Oleo and Mr. PC as being non-melodic based only on a reading of the head in a Real Book, take some time to hear the tunes in their intended musical contexts—played by jazz players with rhythm sections. You might be surprised at how melodic those heads really are.

It might surprise you as well to find that a standard tune with which you happen to be unfamiliar sounds less than melodic if first heard without its harmonic foundation. Imagine "One Note Samba" with no changes. Imagine hearing it that way for the first time.

When people hear only the melodies of tunes with which they are familiar, their memories fill in the missing harmonic contexts. Just as when they hear a familiar song played as an instrumental, their memories fill in the lyrics.

Remove either from their experience and they have only part of the story.
 

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Rick Adams said:
Perhaps I should have added the words "more than could be desirable" to the end of my sentence you quoted, as this was what I meant.
Rick -- Sorry, yes, I probably wasn't entire fair with that one. I didn't really think you meant to say anything in an unqualified sense.

The whole issue reminds me a little bit of poetry, where a lot of modern work is done in free verse with no strict rules regarding rhythm or rhyming. Other poets thrive and write within genres having within much tighter constraints. Even in free-er genres, part of being creative is working within and rising above constraints.
 

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docformat,

How do you define a "better" musician? Harmonic complexity? Rhythmic variation? Ability of motive and theme? Spontaneity? Ability to "nail it" the first time every time? Emotional honesty? Rawness? Smoothness?

My point is that while you (and I) believe that 'Trane is a better musician than Brittany, lots of people don't. They can listen to Brittany while 'Trane just sounds like noise.

Now there's an argument that can be made about Brittany's musical ineptitude, which, by the way, I fully support. However Having said that some of the microtonal stuff out there sounds like noise to me - that doesn't mean it is. Still doesn't mean I'm going to enjoy listening to it. In the same vein guys like Archie Shepp and Ornette don't really appeal to me because I just find their playing too intense. Doesn't mean it's bad.

My point is only you can say what is "good music". Good music means different things to everyone. I hear some young guys today who can carve changes ridiculously well. I don't think it's good music. To me they're playing lacks soul. I dig guys like Brecker and Bob Berg so it's not like I can't stand fast, harmonically advanced playing. I'm just saying they don't sound like they have any feeling to me. Therefore technical ability does not make good music. It is only one part of it, and I would argue that technique in and of itself doesn't mean anything, but instead you simply want to be able to express yourself and don't want your lock fo technique getting in the way of that.

Therefore I would argue that what you perceive as good music may not be so perceived by others, and vice versa. So if someone feels like Brittany really speaks to them and makes them feel a certain way, doesn't that make it good music - to them at least? If there's an eight year old playing alto and sounds terrible to everyone except his mother, who thinks it's the most beautiful thing she's ever heard - doesn't that make it good music to her?

To me music is about expression and feeling and a connection between the audience and the listener. As no one but the listener can say whether the music reaches them, I would argue that music IS entirely subjective.

I'd be interested to see your thoughts on the matter (if you're still lurking). I'm not trying to undermine your opinion, but instead am interested in elaborating on mine so that you can post a rebuttal and hopefully we can both learn something new from it. I respect your opinion and am interested in trying to understand it more clearly so that I can draw something from it and hope you feel the same way.

I also agree with hakukani - to a point. While I don't think it's necessary for sax players to have to memorize the words of a tune we're playing, I do think we should at least look at the words and figure out what the tune is ABOUT. Again I don't think you necessarily HAVE to follow them, but like anything else in music, it should be a tool to help you, not a straightjacket to constrict you.

-Dan

P.S. I love Mr. PC and that tune really speaks to me when I play it. By the same token some old standards sound boring and written without much feeling - to my ears. Neither of us are right or wrong, in my opinion. We just have opinions on the music we like. And that will help us develop as musicians.
 

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Good posts from docformat and tenorocity. It's really about understand the specific ideas of each tune/song. A lot of standards are from musicals or similar and would work even without improvisation at all. Some songs/tunes like Mr. PC are clearly a beginning idea to follow with improvisation, it just wouldn't work without it.

Irimi it is good that you you understand what you like. It's very possible that you don't like some songs because you don't understand the ideas in them. You can either try to understand or leave it alone, but I can tell you that some music that I would not like some years ago is music that I listen to a lot today.
 

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Good discussion here with lots to consider. Thanks to all who contributed. When I read the original post I thought we'd just see "play thru the 1-3-5-7's of all the changes".... which of course is helpful, but there's obviously a lot more to it.
 
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